Courtesy of Pan Pan Narkprasert
The Queen of Thailand's Drag Scene Is Fierce and Fearless
Pangina Heals lets out a gasp. For a moment, she allows the smoldering expression to drop from her face and fans herself dramatically. After a blistering, Beyoncé-inspired dance routine consisting of rapid-fire splits, high-kicks and booty-pops—all executed in towering silver platform stilettos—she’s struggling not to sweat in her full-body sequined catsuit. It’s after 11 pm in New York’s East Village and the crowd is too busy screaming and thrusting fistfuls of crumpled one-dollar bills in her direction to care. When she reappears on the stage an hour later in a black bob wig à la Velma Kelly for a Chicago number, she’s greeted with ecstatic cries of “Yasss, bitch!”
“Thank you to everyone who came out to support drag culture,” she cries. “You people make it possible for a man to make a living by dressing up as a woman!”
Pan Pan Narkprasert, Pangina Heals’s daytime male alter ego, has done much more than make a living by dressing up as a woman. The Thai-Taiwanese performer has sashayed through shows across Asia dressed in outfits ranging from the expected—Lady Gaga’s "Telephone" ensemble—to the brilliantly absurdist—a sexy noodle bowl for Chinese New Year and a som tam (Thai papaya salad) riff on Carmen Miranda. Several of the New York audience members, none of whom have ever been to Thailand, tell me that they’ve been following him for months.
Though Narkprasert has been a big deal in his hometown of Bangkok for years, he lacked that sort of global recognition until February 2018, when he made his debut as a judge on the newly launched Drag Race Thailand. The show became the first international spin-off to earn RuPaul’s official blessing, though British and Brazilian ones are in the pipeline. It was also such a smash in its own right that U.S. television picked up Season 1 and began streaming episodes in May. Thanks largely to RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag is having a moment and is closer to the mainstream than ever before. A record-breaking 50,000 people attended this year’s RuPaul’s DragCon in Los Angeles, where Pangina Heals kicked off her U.S. tour by becoming the first-ever Thai drag queen to perform.
“Drag is a Western culture, so I’m excited to see it here at its best,” Narkprasert tells me later. Without his imposing color contacts and fake lashes, he’s far more approachable, with a shy smile and a low-key demeanor. He describes dancing his way through American drag bars and dives as a pivotal point in his career. “I get to exchange what Thai drag culture is like and learn so much more about what it’s really all about.”
Drag is a relatively recent cultural import in Thailand. While the country has a longstanding tradition of cabaret shows starring kathoey, or transgender female performers, these “ladyboy shows,” as they’re often less politely referred to, cater mostly to gawking foreign tourists. Years ago, when I sat through a performance at Simon Cabaret, one of the more famous of such establishments on the island of Phuket, there was hardly a Thai person in the audience. Showgirls sporting rhinestone tiaras and extravagant, Vegas-style plumage teetered across the stage in heels and vamped to the kind of soundtrack one might expect to hear on a cruise line for the geriatric set.
Like many such shows, the theater was located in the middle of a booming red light district. A number of Thai showgirls have publicly stated that they’re proud of what they do, but it was hard to shake the less-than-subtly exploitive vibe.
Transgender individuals may be highly visible in Thailand, but according to a country report by the United Nations Development Programme, they often “suffer the most employment discrimination” and their “life options are severely limited.” The Thai government currently offers them little legal protection and refuses to acknowledge their gender in instances such as the mandatory military draft. In other words, the dancers might have chosen to be there, but it wasn’t as if they had a whole lot of viable alternatives.
In any culture where [LGBT culture is] suppressed, when they fuck, they’re gonna fuck harder. They’re gonna party so much harder.
In contrast, the drag queens that now rule Bangkok’s nocturnal landscape are very much running their own show. Unlike cabaret performers, who often go unbilled and work for low wages, Pangina Heals’s regular collaborators like Kandy Zyanide, whose Ariana Grande impression is so spot-on that it almost fooled the singer herself, and Meannie Minaj, who channels Nicki Minaj, headline upscale bars like Maggie Choo’s, a chinoiserie-themed lounge frequented by locals and expats alike. And while the queens may rock plenty of glitter-spangled spandex, looking pretty isn’t enough to cut it. At these gigs, tightly choreographed dance routines and wickedly raunchy comedy stand in for half-hearted lip-synching.
Much of the change has to do with Narkprasert. Since Pangina Heals strutted onto the scene as “Thailand’s waacking drag queen” in 2011, she’s made a point of sharing the spotlight with fellow queens and educating the general public about LGBTQ matters. In 2014, she launched a web series with Coconuts TV called Queer As Fuck—“I’m queer as fuck and if you don’t like it, you can go fuck yourself!”—in which she interspersed informative segments on proper gender terminology with stunts like rock-climbing, riding a water buffalo and firing a handgun in full drag.
Although drag may have Western roots, Narkprasert acknowledges that Thai performers have put their own distinctive spin on the art. Many of his own acts make cheeky nods to Thai culture and his performances in Bangkok are bilingual so as to include everyone in the audience. And while drag culture may be different than Thai cabaret culture, Narkprasert has never shown anything but support for trans performers who identify as female offstage, whether they call themselves drag queens or showgirls. In April 2018, he interviewed contestants at Miss Tiffany’s Universe, Thailand’s famous beauty pageant for transgender women. Earlier this year, RuPaul caused a controversy when he expressed reservations about accepting trans female performers as drag queens. Though Narkprasert is careful not to criticize RuPaul, whom he looks up to, he has his own views on the matter.
“Anyone can do drag, because drag is an art. So many people do drag and they don’t have to be of a particular sex. It’s just all performance, really,” he says. “Having said that, the term ‘drag queen’ is associated with someone who’s born with the genitalia of the male sex. So Lady Gaga can do drag, but would she be considered a drag queen? No.”
Though Pangina Heals may be known for her brazen, take-no-shit-take-no-prisoners style, Narkprasert wasn’t always this way. In fact, when he first encountered drag queens in West Hollywood while studying at UCLA, he wasn’t a fan.
“Now, I feel that drag queens are a tribute to the strength of women, which I find to be very liberating,” he says. “In the beginning, though, I was really taken aback. I was soft-spoken and pretty much a self-hating Asian, so I wasn’t into something that was super-confident.”
Though years of grueling dance workouts have given Narkprasert an enviable six-pack, in his university days other students bullied him for being overweight and effeminate. As an 18-year-old, he was coming to terms with his own identity and sexuality, a process that still makes him wince.
“I think the day I came out was the worst day of my life. It was also the day that my first boyfriend broke up with me and the same day I moved into UCLA,” he remembers. “Worst possible fucking day. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks.”
As painful as the experience was, it’s one of the many setbacks he credits for his current success. Some people may be born bold, but Narkprasert had to learn it the hard way. One of the elements of drag that initially attracted him was its power to mask those insecurities and transform the mundane into something spectacular.
“It took years for me to become this confident,” he says. “You use all those qualities where people make you feel like shit and you basically rise above that. You fake it till you make it, until one day your confidence level is where you want it to be.”
Just as it took years for Narkprasert to learn how to act like a queen, it took almost as long for him to learn how to look like one. Piece by piece, he discovered how to change his appearance through elaborate contouring and the occasional prosthetics. Morphing into Pangina Heals takes roughly two to three hours of cosmetic wizardry. With rare exceptions, he still insists on applying his own makeup and takes pleasure in the challenge of it.
“Makeup is an art of its own,” he says. “Honestly, the biggest part is knowing your own features so well that you can experiment with them. It takes a while to know which qualities you want to accentuate and which ones you want to cover up.”
Over time, Pangina Heals’s looks have evolved—as have her acts as she reaches out to new audiences. Out of countless performances across Southeast Asia, the ones that stand out in her memory are those in cities where LGBTQ culture still carries a whiff of taboo.
“In any culture where it’s suppressed, when they fuck, they’re gonna fuck harder. They’re gonna party so much harder,” Narkprasert says. He still thinks fondly of a show in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where it took five security guards to enable him to walk through the crowd. “I was performing to, like, a thousand gay people. It was huge. I thought I was actually Beyoncé.”
He laughs and shakes his head.
“So I went up to mic and I said, ‘You’re not supposed to have gay sex here, so you guys must give really good handjobs!’” he says. Though Narkprasert never shies away from camp, there’s a serious element to what he does. “People came up to me after with tears in their eyes and just said, ‘It’s so brave for you to stand on stage like that.’”
Whether in or out of costume, Narkprasert is uncensored, unashamed, un-PC and, yes, brave. He’s no longer afraid to speak up, especially in places where it takes real balls for a man to don high heels.